Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – New Mexico’s southeastern quadrant has three times as many new coronavirus cases per person than the state as a whole, according to a new report released by the state’s Department of Health.
The southeastern region – which stretches from Lea to Lincoln and Quay counties, by the department’s definition – has averaged about 14 new cases per day for every 100,000 people over the past seven days.
It is the only region in the state with infection levels above the Department of Health goal of eight or fewer new cases per day.
Senator Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, said he believes the Southeast may have higher case levels, in part, due to the number of jobs in the oil fields – work that cannot be done remotely for limit the transmission of diseases. The job also includes a disproportionate amount of travel as people drive to and from Texas.
They “constantly go back and forth across the state line,” Kernan said. “I think this is a factor.”
Whatever the cause, the southeastern part of the state is enduring a higher total infection rate than elsewhere this month, according to the latest statistical report released by the Department of Health.
Overall, the state recorded an average of 4.4 new cases in the week ending September 13, or about a third of cases compared to the Southeast. The Albuquerque metropolitan area had the lowest prevalence of disease, with only 2.2 cases.
The southeast hasn’t always been the state’s hot spot. The northwestern region, including parts of the Navajo Nation and San Juan and McKinley Counties, has been the hardest hit since the pandemic reached New Mexico in March.
But counties in the southeastern quadrant are now seeing the majority of cases once the population has been taken into account.
Regional differences are important. Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s administration is making county-by-county decisions on whether to allow the partial reopening of elementary schools.
Part of the criteria is whether the county where the school is located meets the goal of just eight cases per day or less per 100,000 population. School districts must also meet other standards, including approving a specific return plan.
Kernan, a retired teacher, said the failure to reopen schools in Southeast New Mexico is a huge stress for families, especially single parents. School districts and teachers in the area, he said, are ready to reopen safely.
“I am extremely frustrated,” Kernan said in an interview. “I think at some point you have to balance the risk of contracting COVID with the risk of what we are doing to our children by not allowing them to go back to school.”
The state’s top health officials say the cautious approach is justified. In other communities, they say, the key to successfully reopening schools has been the prevalence of the disease in the wider population.
Senator William Soules, D-Las Cruces, said the Lujan Grisham administration was right in setting specific goals that counties need to achieve before schools reopen.
“This is a deadly virus,” Soules said Wednesday. “To err carefully, I think, is the right thing to keep children safe.”
Soules, who is now retired, was teaching part-time last year when COVID-19 first interrupted the spring semester and forced schools to learn online. It’s important, he said, for students to be consistent, rather than opening schools too quickly and then having to close them again.
In the southwest quadrant, including the Las Cruces area, the prevalence rate of the disease is within the state’s target of eight or fewer cases per day. Regardless, Las Cruces has chosen to stick with distance learning for now, as have the large districts of Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
New Mexico reported just 119 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday as infection levels remained well within the state’s overall targets.
Lea County led the state with 16 new cases on Wednesday, followed by Roosevelt County with 15 cases.
Eddy and Bernalillo counties each had 14 cases.
New Mexico’s seven-day moving average now stands at 110 new cases per day, well below the state’s target of 168 cases or fewer overall, or eight cases per 100,000 people.
Health officials also reported two more deaths from the virus, pushing the death toll across the state to 832 residents since March. Both victims were in their 60s: a man from Doña Ana County and a woman from Lea County.